Spencer Tweedy Finds Excitement In the Nuance

Photos by  Michael Salisbury

Forging his own path through hard work.

Spencer Tweedy understands the importance of honing your craft through practice and letting experience influence you. As the son of one of the great American songwriters, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, he’s been fortunate to be around so many wonderful musicians to model his own career and process on. Now, at 22, Spencer is most at home in the studio in Chicago, working through the twists and turns of music and thought and working towards new efforts as a solo artist.

Spencer started playing the drums early in life, performing with his friends around the age of seven. Developing an identity as a drummer, Spencer worked through the styles that suit him best so that he now has a strong sense of what the drummer’s purpose is. “The main principle is to get out of the way” he says. He believes the drummer should buttress the song effectively and exist within the natural progression, something he describes as ‘extreme minimalism’. He’s a rare vocalist and drummer, gaining heavy influence from the deft playing and ability to sing of drummers like Ringo Starr and Levon Helm.

I’m most excited by the little things that present themselves…sometimes the most exciting parts of a song happen in the nuances.

Although he’d played drums his whole life, he became determined to be a professional musician when his father, Jeff Tweedy, invited him to work with Chicago legend Mavis Staples on her 2013 album One True Vine. Those sessions were a tipping point for Spencer. Not only did he love the process, he knew that his father passed on a lot of responsibility to him. Spencer’s father was reluctant to bring him in for fear of having clouded judgement in favor of his son, but Spencer lived up to the moment. “That was very validating, and I think it was smart of my dad to be cautious like that. And I’m just grateful that I’m allowed to hang in that professional environment and make those records.”

You can hear much of the subtlety in his approach on One True Vine. The drums seem to lay out delicately, driving the track but not deciding where to go. This stands out most prominently on the title track where Spencer holds down the sparse groove, with some notes hitting in full thud, while he pulls back on the snare with the occasional muted crash of the cymbal. Spencer pays careful attention to keeping the cymbals under control, not wanting them to overwhelm when he plays. 

Opportunities like this coupled with an early gravitation towards playing allow him to pull back and focus on songwriting and singing, the area he feels like he needs the most work in. “I really love singing. It feels so good to sing. But at this point in life, I’m not an extremely confident singer. I think it really takes time to build up a strong vocal muscle.”

I’m just grateful that I’m allowed to hang in that professional environment and make those records.

He laments that he doesn’t practice drums as much as he once did, but it’s obvious that his skill has reached a point where he views things at a higher level of musicality rather than just focusing on one instrument. He describes drumming and songwriting as, “not very different from one another because hopefully you’ll be in the same state of being completely consumed by the music no matter what part of it you’re executing.”

His first solo attempt, Geezer Love, came out in 2016 and presents a full range of his musical abilities and his mature approach to songwriting. He plays every instrument and, despite his trepidations, sings well on the album throughout. He takes advantage of the recording environment, playing with the use of stereo and adding in off-kilter elements that make listening to a record a fun, unique experience from the live performance. His guitar playing is twangy and well-situated, and the project is tightly composed and a satisfying listen.

He now relentlessly gets in the studio and sees recording as an essential component to discovering the elements of a track. “I’m most excited by the little things that present themselves to you when you’re actually executing a song in recording… sometimes the most exciting parts of a song happen in the nuances.” There’s a sense that he wants to wrangle with a track and give it time to reveal itself to him rather than dictate what it will be. “You discover so much just by being rigorous like that and letting it be the only thing you think about for a while.”

Currently a college student majoring in philosophy, Spencer is letting life come to him on his own terms. He remains focused and present in his education, but prioritizes his music career and maintains a strong presence in Chicago. The prospect of him returning to the city refocused and educated is exciting and filled with possibilities. Experience, resources, and thoughtfulness are a wonderful recipe.